Monday, April 8, 2013

#ReaditMD13 - The Gender Gap 'Boy Books and Girl Books'

Old-fashioned stereotyping or shrewd marketing?
We're hoping you missed us a teeny weeny bit while we took a blog break (once again I'm in awe of anyone who can manage a blog and their kids at the same time). But we're now back and we're cracking straight on with our #ReadItMummiesandDaddies2013 campaign theme weeks.

This week we thought we'd tackle the thorny subject of 'girl' books and 'boy' books. It's a controversial piece of marketing that creeps into books just as it does into other forms of entertainment or pastimes for children and it's one that's about as welcome as Darth Vader in a kissing booth. 

It's easy to see why such divisions are still promoted and still regularly happen. A subtle tweak, a colour change and you can double your market share with books that look 'tailored' to their audience. 

As we've all too often seen though, the division goes deeper than just colour, reinforcing stereotypes that parents would rather had stayed back in Victorian times. Quaint ideas that only boys like dinosaurs, while girls are quite happy making things or cooking. 

At home, we regularly find that despite our best efforts, well-meaning friends and family unintentionally subvert our attempts to ensure that Charlotte gets a good spread of books that are non-gender specific. Sometimes though it does feel like no one actually asks her what she likes or what she's into and just imagines that all girls (including Charlotte) will love the frilly pink cutesy stories when they'd probably have a shock if they saw the sort of books she regularly pulls from her shelves and demands to have read to her again and again. 

Like all kids, boy or girl, she changes her mind as often as the wind changes direction and that's why it saddens me when I hear stories from other parents - or from the lovely book folk we've met through this blog who regularly encounter the gender gap not only being fed but actually encouraged and reinforced. The bizarre notion that boys will be less 'effective' as alpha males if they dare read the likes of Alice in Wonderland or anything even remotely cute, or for that matter featuring a strong female lead character rather than some rough and tumble boy. 

The flip side is also that there are parents who are quite happy for their little girl to read nothing but the frilly pink stuff. On Twitter, it's quite interesting to note the effect on a company who dares put out a set of blue and pink toys, activities or books - and how quickly those companies attempt to either justify their actions or back down so the question is, why do it in the first place? We're back to marketing again...

We aim to encourage parents to read to their children with our campaign, but sometimes you also have to also hope with all your heart that they're going to read the right stuff, and leave books that negatively reinforce these stereotypes exactly where they are. 


  1. Hmm interesting. When I began the Rescue Princesses idea I was aware that I was subverting princess stereotypes (as many books do), but I was also aware the books would mainly be read by girls. I do know of boys who have enjoyed them but they are fewer. The background being that I have 2 daughters and their crazy antics gave me the germ of the idea in the first place (hence the ninja training the girls go off and do.)
    My new older novel (9+) Faerie Tribes isn't gender skewed. The faeries are human sized and not at all sparkly! But with a girl central character I am aware that my boy audience is likely to be small, which is a shame.
    My eldest daughter has told me that she thinks many books that are suggested as being for both sexes, have a boy as the central character and then have a token girl to make the book appear neutral, and this annoys her. (She didn't use the word token but that's what she meant.)
    I think it's true that we often read to find out more about ourselves as well as about the world around us. When they first become properly aware that they're a girl or boy (around 3??), children must wonder what that means and wish to find out more. They might then naturally lean towards books that let them find out more about their identity. It's so important that we don't narrowly define gender roles in the stories we give them.

  2. I agree that gender specific books are wrong, particularly for younger children, and are often nothing more than a marketing ploy. But in my professional life, I am in the business of trying to convince teens to read and there is no doubt that for some teenagers will only read "girl" books and "boy" books and so I have used that in my promoting - having "pink book" displays and "boys will be boys" displays. All I care about is that the characters are good role models. A great example is Shannon Hale's Princess Academy. Look up the UK cover - you will find it hard to find anything more pink. Yet the main character is an independent, resourceful, clever and nothing like a fairytale princess. I would have no shame enticing my girl readers to it by using its pinkness, because I know it is a great story, with a great character.
    Paula's daughter is right regarding teen books aimed at both sexes, maybe with the exception of The Hunger Games, and Moira Young's Blood Red Road. Yet, both those central characters are hardly a typical girl characters - they are represented as "tomboys" who despise dressing up etc. But generally I think girls are most definitely more open-minded when it comes to their reading - they will read Robert Muchamore and Anthony Horowitz, but few boys will read Sarah Dessen or Eve Edwards. That's just the way it is, and I'd rather embrace and get my kids reading, than constantly hit my head against a brick wall :0)

  3. I’ve been trying to avoid getting drawn into debates about gender issues in children’s literature so that I can concentrate on writing some actual children’s literature for a bit, but you’ve succeeded in sucking me back in again!

    I think many people assume that the only reason that many boys like digger books and many girls like princess books is because boys and girls have these tastes conditioned into them. However, while conditioning plays an important role, there’s a great deal of scientific evidence suggesting that boys and girls are born with innately different tastes. For a compelling example read the short section headed “Nature’s Experiments” on page 8 of this article:

    While there are girls with boy-typical tastes and vice versa, I don’t think it’s wrong to acknowledge certain tastes as being boy or girl-typical and to use that knowledge to maximise a book’s appeal to one sex or another. It only becomes a problem if we don’t have books for kids with gender-atypical tastes as well. While publishers produce relatively few of these, they produce far more of them for girls with atypical tastes than for boys; there are far more pirate books about girl pirates (like "The Night Pirates") than there are ballet books about boy ballet dancers. I’ve argued on that this is part of a wider gender bias in picture books that is exacerbating the gender gap between boys’ and girls reading abilities.

    Picking up on Library Mice’s comment that “girls are most definitely more open-minded when it comes to their reading”, there is quite a lot of scientific research into toy preferences that suggest that girls are indeed less likely to have gender-typical preferences than boys are and that this difference may also be innate. Some of this research is outlined in this article by Gwen Dewar which is worth a read


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